Sunday 19 November 2017

'Breezy' act from the White House can't mask serious developments

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Photo: AP
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Photo: AP
David Usborne

David Usborne

Like many around the world who watched her, you may have marvelled at Sarah Huckabee Sanders's attempt at contemptuous breeziness in the West Wing press room in the wake of the not unarresting news that Robert Mueller had successfully obtained indictments for Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and a close associate, Rick Gates.

It might have gone a little better for her if Mueller HQ had stopped at that. But no. Swift on the heels of the first bulletin had come the revelation that a former foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, named George Papadopoulos, had already pleaded guilty to lying about contacts with Russia, directly to do with providing "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

Ms Sanders was clearly nervous. Actually, she looked at times like she wanted to be sick. Mr Trump had been huddled in the presidential apartments upstairs in the White House, not showing up in the Oval Office, for most of the morning, fretting and fulminating as both pieces of news dropped and cable TV went into overdrive digging through it all. Obviously, he would be watching again as she set about telling reporters that what had happened was of no concern to him at all.

She agreed a photograph existed of Mr Trump and Mr Papadopoulos in a meeting together last year, but dismissed it as ephemera. He's been in "thousands" of pictures with "millions" of people, she said. If she means being snapped at his rallies, I could almost make the same claim. Oh, and yes, she stood by her assessment that Mr Mueller would be ending his work soon. No, he won't.

Of course, the White House will continue to distance itself from the Mueller problem and do everything it can to obfuscate and throw up distractions. Thus Ms Sanders's repeated insistence that charges against Mr Manafort and Mr Gates, including money laundering, related to work done for a pro-Putin political party in Ukraine that pre-dated the campaign. Watch as they continue to push the narrative that it's Hillary Clinton who should be investigated, not them.

Pity Ms Sanders; this will be a mission largely impossible. There are questions to be answered by the Clinton campaign as to money paid secretly to a firm called Fusion GPS to research past Trump activities in Russia. But there is no equivalency between that affair and the Trump collusion probe. Nor would any wrong done by Mrs Clinton right any wrongs done by Mr Trump. As for Mr Trump's assertions that Mrs Clinton personally profited from a 2010 deal involving the purchase by Russia of a North American uranium mining company, they are demonstrably false.

There really is no minimising, meanwhile, the events of Monday. The first charge against Mr Manafort and Mr Gates, regarding "conspiracy against the United States" turned on allegations of their "impeding, impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of a government agency, namely the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury", relates to actions "from in or about and between 2006 and 2017". 2016 is in there somewhere.

Nor is it is easy to pretend that neither man was anything but central to Mr Trump and his campaign. His nominating convention in Cleveland was entirely engineered by Mr Manafort, who was campaign chairman at the time. Although he would depart the campaign soon after, following press reports of his Ukraine links, Mr Gates stuck around, including through the Trump transition.

Then there's young Mr Papadopoulus, who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about a meeting with a professor in Italy in April 2016, who told him the Russians had emails to share that might be damaging to Mrs Clinton. True, he was only a volunteer on the Trump campaign and seemingly that meeting that Mr Trump also attended was a one-off. But, over the succeeding months, he repeatedly attempted to persuade the campaign to follow the Russia trail. He even attempted to flog the notion of a "historic" meeting between Mr Trump and Vladimir Putin.

His surfacing will have obliterated any sense of relief the White House may have felt when the story was at first only about Mr Manafort and Mr Gates. (They had been deeply afraid that the promised indictments might have targeted former National Security advisor Michael Flynn.) It is a signal from Mr Mueller he has no intention of skirting clear of the campaign itself. It also shows what many had expected: that Mr Mueller means to flip participants, however small-fry, so they will help bring bigger fish to justice. Assuming there are any, of course.

© Independent News Service

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